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Posts by Christian Ford

A couple thousand years ago, Hero of Alexandria, engineer, author, mathematician, and above all inventor, encountered a problem that needed fixing.  Visitors to a nearby temple were helping themselves to more than their fair share of holy water.  Hero’s solution was to invent the vending machine.  Insert a coin into Hero’s vendo, and the weight of the coin would cause the pan on which it rested to tilt.  This tripped a lever which started a flow which lasted until the pan […]

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In the fall of 2012, the NYTimes magazine ran a piece by Dan Buettner with the catchy title The Island Where People Forget to Die.  It was about the Greek island of Ikaria and, yes, it looks just like all those Greek islands, with the whitewashed walls, the turquoise sea and the nostalgic haze suggesting that this slower, simpler life must be a better one.  The difference is, at least when it comes to human lifespan, life on Ikaria really […]

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If you happened to be in Tokyo’s Toyosu District on the right day last June, you might have come across a pop-up restaurant named “The Restaurant of Order Mistakes.”  All pop-ups need a good gimmick and this one was no exception — all the waitstaff are dementia patients.  Take a seat inside, peruse the menu and before long a smiling gray-haired lady in a waiter’s apron will take your order.  Whether you get what you ordered is an open question. […]

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August 4th, 2017

The Mod Cons

BY Christian Ford

Like a substantial fraction of Americans, I spent part of this summer camping. That’s a pretty broad category, ranging from ultralight hikers bivouacking under a tarp to RV retirees running satellite TV off generators in 45-foot motorhomes, but what all of them have in common is the need to get food on the table, or rock, as the case may be. My variant was in the middle.  Our pack mule was an automobile but our only means of cooking was […]

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July 20th, 2017

The Dining Car

BY Christian Ford

If you’re anything like me, you were scarred in your youth by the golden age of travel.  It was the imagery that did me in: glorious ocean liners where the captain dined at your table; overnight trains with immaculate service and possibly a spy aboard; the dawn of transoceanic passenger flight, when flying boats epitomized modernity even as they flew directly to an exotic past. Those days are so gone it’s hard to imagine that they ever existed.  But their […]

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July 8th, 2017

High Hitler

BY Christian Ford

It’s a truism that you are what you eat, but perhaps never more so than in Nazi Germany.  Even if the war ended so long ago that certain elements of American society have forgotten that the Nazis were the bad guys, there are still discoveries to be made about the defining cataclysm of the 20th Century.  German novelist Norman Ohler has made a particularly startling one with his nonfiction book Der Totale Rausch, translated into English as Blitzed.  It tells […]

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Just when I was about to completely despair of the world in which I live, along comes Taco Trucks at Every Mosque, delivering tidings of Feliz Ramadan.  This delightful notion is a riposte to the comments of Marco Gutierrez, the presumably self-hating co-founder of Latinos for Trump.  In September of 2016, Gutierrez catapulted himself to internet infamy (and a Wikipedia page) by commenting “My culture is a very dominant culture, and it’s imposing and it’s causing problems. If you don’t […]

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June 6th, 2017

Hive Dive

BY Christian Ford

I was just along for the ride. Sometimes family determines what you encounter in life, and so it is that my children, students of a public school best described as renegade, are the gateway to a parade of unexpected things.  Their school embraces serendipity and one day serendipity brought Carl, a local man heavily engaged in beekeeping.  So now bees are part of the life of the classroom. The timing couldn’t be better because bees — as you must know and if […]

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May 21st, 2017

BurgerBots

BY Christian Ford

Remember when San Francisco was a city of hills with modest white buildings stair-stepping down to the white-capped bay?   Yeah, me neither.  But I have it on good authority that it was once, that right around the moment when Kim Novak threw herself into the bay, San Francisco really was what a Greek island village might have been if it grew into a great city. But the city that created the legend of The City is gone and the […]

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Chances are that you’ve heard of the Iceman, even if you can’t pronounce his nickname, Ötzi.  (Tell your lips and tongue to say “E,” but instead make the sound of “O” and you’ll be on the right path.) In any case, Ötzi was the copper age man who died in the Tyrolean Alps over 5,000 years ago, and then froze solid until his icefield melted in 1991, yielding the most well-preserved natural mummy ever discovered.  They’ve been studying him for […]

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I don’t think I’ll get a lot of pushback if I suggest that Americans have a singularly weird relationship with food.  Until now, I’ve blithely assumed that this was a relatively recent phenomenon, that the weirdness grew from a modern sensibility rooted in a reverence for technology, amplified by leisure and driven to full madness by advertising.  But, boy, was I wrong.  Or maybe, I’ve just been defining “modern” incorrectly. The craziness started in the 19th century, and it was, […]

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March 13th, 2017

The Malt Caves

BY Christian Ford

The English city of Nottingham — seat of Robin Hood’s infamous sheriff — was built on  sandstone.  The city’s castle stands on a high outcrop of the stuff which is why it’s now called  Nottingham Castle sandstone.  This silty stone, laid down by a primordial river, is so soft that just about anyone can dig through it.   At the same time, it’s sturdy enough to not collapse, even you don’t know much about digging tunnels.  As you might imagine, […]

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March 4th, 2017

Hate You, Baby

BY Christian Ford

The other day I had the opportunity to play with no less than thirty typewriters from the first half of the last century and since this is a column about food and culture and not industrial design, I’ll limit my report to saying that it was a journey to a culture of refreshing tactility. The experience was still with me when I found myself trying to repair a brand-new electric pencil sharpener at my son’s school.  It was a doomed errand, because […]

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February 24th, 2017

Food/Lawns/Food

BY Christian Ford

About a decade ago, a movement emerged called “Food Not Lawns.” This was a drive to replace the ubiquitous suburban lawn with a yardscape that yielded sustenance. You will perhaps not be surprised to hear that this created a minor firestorm in some neighborhoods, particularly those governed by “covenants” that the homeowners bought into with their home purchases. Almost uniformly, these covenants were about protecting home value by mandating a certain 1950s suburban pride aesthetic, with the manicured lawn as […]

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February 10th, 2017

The Yuck Factor

BY Christian Ford

Disgust arrives with such a visceral and instinctive punch that we should be forgiven for assuming that it’s hardwired.  To be clear, disgust is a universal human emotion with an equally universal facial expression, which means that it’s intrinsic to the human animal.  But exactly what triggers that response is highly flexible and culturally conditioned.  In other words, we have to learn just what counts as disgusting, which is why different cultures have very different ideas of what you should […]

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February 2nd, 2017

The Maltings

BY Christian Ford

Brewing is the next edifice to fall to the welcome march of “local,” with some craft brewers branching into farming to create a bottled version of farm-to-table.  It’s an interesting development, but for some reason it puts me in mind of how we could only have local food after food became un-local in the first place, which of course means that most food was, in a historic sense, local.  Brewing was very much a part of that, because beer didn’t […]

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Now that citizens of the United States live in what some cynics (or would that be realists?) describe as a kleptocracy, it’s useful to reflect on just who owns just what.  A lovely and lucid piece by Rachel Cernansky at Ensia details what is called the Open Source Seed Initiative, and it’s well worth reading if you’re interested in, say, food. The short version is that large seed companies (think Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer and so on) have taken to filling […]

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Rumor has it that ancient Romans once partook of a fish which produced what we would call an acid trip.  The evidence of this is, unsurprisingly, fuzzy — but it’s well within the realm of the possible.  Sarpa salpa is a common denizen of the Mediterranean coast that goes by the name of the cow bream, or the goldline, or the salema porgy.  It’s a frequent “fresh caught” menu item in the south of France, and that’s where a couple […]

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In this season of unexpected obituaries, let me add one more name:  Serge Hochar.  He’s been gone two years now, but his story, his life’s work, is so deeply enmeshed with time and history that it seems somehow right to let him settle into history before turning to reflect upon what he accomplished. Hochar was a winemaker of French ancestry who worked in Lebanon.  I was surprised when I heard of his terroir but that was only demonstrating the depth […]

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December 15th, 2016

This Bud’s For You

BY Christian Ford

I suppose it’s part and parcel of our escalating Weimar Republic flashback to simultaneously watch the school for scoundrels roll back the cultural clock while some people spin it forward.  Exhibit No. 1:  the entire Left Coast, all 1300 miles of it, which has now legalized marijuana.  I’ll leave it to the Magic 8-Ball to determine what position the incoming federal administration takes on this, but while we’re waiting, we have an interesting bit of data to unpack. It seems […]

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November 30th, 2016

Break Stuff

BY Christian Ford

There are the things you know are coming, and then there are the things that you can imagine are coming and, regrettably, it’s the latter that matters.  So, in light of an election which shuffled impossible into inescapable, perhaps it is time to revisit the list of “yeah, someday,” and “maybe, I dunno” food events that we’ve all heard of but which have never crossed the imaginative border into reality. I’ll focus on seven foods, but it’s not really seven.  […]

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November 15th, 2016

Resurrection Seed

BY Christian Ford

Their home was a fortress, so they did what residents of a fortress do — prepared for the siege.  In time, the siege came and — though the fortress seemed impregnable — the walls were breached.  Only seven of the nearly thousand defenders survived and the victors cast a coin to commemorate the defeat of the rebellion.  On the front of the coin, they put the visage of their well-fed emperor and on the back, the figure of a woman […]

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October 31st, 2016

The Grind

BY Christian Ford

East of Iceland, North of Scotland, and West of Norway you’d expect to find little but cold, gray sea, and yet there’s a country there, a few degrees south of the Arctic Circle, home to some forty-nine thousand descendants of Viking men and Celtic women.  This is the Faroe Islands and, while they remain part of Denmark’s realm, the Faroe Islanders are their own masters, having wrested a living from these chill rocks since the year 1000. The archipelago is […]

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Sailors, it is said, have a fondness for strong drink, whether it’s singing pirates in Stevenson’s Treasure Island (“Yo Ho Ho and a bottle of rum”) or the Royal Navy’s official daily ration of grog (tragically deep-sixed in 1970.)   The origins of the practice are old, deriving from the era in European history when alcohol was so pervasive that there was no more thought of excluding alcohol from aboard ship than would be of excluding food. Back then, the […]

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October 3rd, 2016

The Outsiders

BY Christian Ford

While learning about Sioux Chef Sean Sherman and his effort to reconstruct a genuine North American cuisine, and I found myself thinking about Afghanistan.  Yes, the Dakota badlands echo the mountains of Central Asia, but those weren’t the similarities that intrigued.  Sherman’s home turf, the Pine Ridge Reservation, is one of the poorest places in the United States, while in Afghanistan close to half of the people scrape by on less than $1.35 a day.  More tellingly, both the Sioux […]

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September 13th, 2016

Same Old (New) World

BY Christian Ford

There are times when I look at the culture I inhabit — taking note of the supersized food, the love affair with plastic, the apparently holy commandment to use as much energy as possible — and I wonder how on earth we got this way.  Was it the fact that the US used to be the Saudi Arabia of the world?  Or maybe it was the abundant farmland?  Or perhaps it was simply the allure of the movies that made so […]

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August 18th, 2016

Galley Slaves

BY Christian Ford

On August 2nd, Dominique Saavedra achieved something no other enlisted woman in the US Navy ever had — a faux silver badge of 1920s design was pinned above the left breast pocket of her fatigues.  Colloquially known as the “dolphins,” the coveted insignia can only worn by those who have qualified to serve aboard US submarines, an arduous and demanding path and one that, until 2015, had only been open to enlisted men.  So, hats off to Chief Saavedra and […]

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It was in a footnote of a book I no longer remember that I first heard “hopping” used to describe something other than what you’d do after stubbing your toe.   Hopping, it turned out, was also an annual migration of Londoners to the hop farms of Kent in the southeast corner of England.  I found the notion instantly intriguing because I simply couldn’t imagine  London’s hardscrabble urban poor afoot in the postcard countryside.   It’s a vanished tradition now, […]

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Some years back, I was part of a community garden.  We arrived the very first year of its existence, which meant that it was a place with no traditions and where most of the gardeners were beginners.  Consequently, there was unusual clarity, as the different patches began to sprout, about what everyone valued.  There were immense plots, tiny plots, highly ordered micro farms that could have escaped from an illustrated children’s book.  And then, there was my plot. Do you […]

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Even if we lived in a world without borders, you would know when you’d arrived somewhere different — the food would change.  That’s not as apparent as it once was, what with McDonald’s hamburgers in Paris, New Zealand apples in Washington State, and your average carrot traveling over a thousand miles to reach you; global trade works tirelessly to obscure the fact that foods and cuisines are rooted in place.   Sometimes, however, you get powerfully reminded of the fact […]

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After writing about Korean artist Jihyun Ryou’s “Saving Food from the Fridge” project, I planned to try some of her ideas for myself.  Of course, I typically have more plans than time but serendipity chose to intervene.  It happened when some freshly purchased bok choy ended up on the counter beside a mysteriously shaped ceramic that my daughter made.  It’s a dark blue thing somewhat like a pie tin and I found that — following Jihyun Ryou’s precepts — if […]

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“What’s in the fridge?” is the refrain.  But a Korean woman practicing design in the Netherlands would like us to change the question to something along the lines of “Why in the fridge?”  Her name is Jihyun Ryou and several years ago, she began thinking about how  this most necessary and ubiquitous appliance had, while tirelessly preserving food, also lead to a certain kind of rot. Her musings became an art/design project that she initially called “Shaping Knowledge,” before settling […]

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In the art and science of modern mapmaking, technology looms large.  GPS coordinates identify location and elevation, aerial photography and LIDAR capture the shape and detail of the land, photogrammetry can convert a stack of snapshots into 3D models of landforms and structures.  But though all that is more than a little like magic, it has the drawback of being fundamentally disconnected from the reality it is attempting to capture.  Which is why, when all the GPSing and LIDARing and photographing […]

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The city of Bristol, wedged between England’s Southwest Peninsula and South Wales, has been a seafaring town since as far back as anyone can imagine.  It was from Bristol in 1497 that an ambitious Italian expat rebranded as John Cabot set off to make the first recorded European landing on North America since the Vikings went home 500 years earlier.  (Various fishermen had gotten there earlier, but they weren’t about to talk it up and share the richest fishing grounds […]

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My family — like yours and like most — has a few “old family recipes.”  One for ham is about a century old and it includes the curious instruction of cutting off both ends of the ham before putting it into the pan.  The truth is, no one knows exactly why we do this, but  it’s how we’ve always done it, so we keep on doing it. Now hold that thought, and come with me to the distant European past […]

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April 19th, 2016

Just Imagine

BY Christian Ford

Sometimes, I think it’s really just a failure of imagination. If we assume, as I think we must, that the timeless Big Question is “how do we feed ourselves,” then imagination looms very large indeed.  One one of the reasons that I find myself fascinated by the forgotten history of answers to this question is the breathtaking cleverness of it all.  It’s stunning, really, the profound subtlety of how our forebears figured out how to leverage the tiniest of advantages […]

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April 11th, 2016

The Messenger

BY Christian Ford

Every so often I have the good fortune — or perhaps I mean misfortune — of getting my paradigm shifted.  My father’s stint as a fisherman was past before I came along, but on occasion it would make its presence known, like once when he commented that the bounty of the sea was too vast to ever be exhausted. I didn’t think about it, just accepted it as a verity.  And though neither of us knew it, there was data […]

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They say that the more things change the more they stay the same.  But sometimes I wonder if that’s not quite right, if it isn’t that the more things change, the more they become the same.    After all, it isn’t just the milk that’s homogenized. So it’s helpful to glance over one’s shoulder and see what used to fill up the world.  Take, for instance, Fat Men’s Clubs.  They vanished in the first half of the twentieth century, but […]

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One of the benefits of raising children is constant rediscovery.  Take, for instance, what were once your favorite books.  Even if they still lurk on your shelf, the chances of revisiting one are slim unless you have someone to go there with.  But since I do, I recently rediscovered a book I read many, many times, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, by Roald Dahl. In an ironic but very real sense, Dahl was my first “food writer.”  It’s not because […]

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February 3rd, 2016

Les Hortillonnages

BY Christian Ford

The name of the river comes from a Celtic word meaning “tranquil.”  The Somme flows, gentle and winding, through the north of France, towards the English Channel and a bay where Duke William of Normandy once assembled the fleet that would transform him into William the Conqueror.   Halfway through the river’s 150-mile course across Picardy, the city of Amiens rises on its banks, but this spot was seen as a good place to live long before its citizens spoke […]

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January 26th, 2016

Eating Our Words

BY Christian Ford

A thousand years ago, the Norman Conquest changed the course of British history.  It also, from our particular point of view, introduced a conceptual fuzziness into how we talk about — and around — the ways we feed ourselves.  The cows, pigs, sheep and chickens in the barnyards of the English (“Angle-ish”) peasantry became beef, pork, mutton and poultry on the tables of the French-speaking nobility which conquered Britain. While the differentiation of pigs from pork has simplified the mental […]

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Once upon a time, the notion of bottled water was exotic to American sensibilities.  I recall first encountering the mystery of water in bottles on an early journey to Europe, where I discovered that restaurants did not habitually serve a glass of iced water.  Requesting water usually resulted in the arrival of a bottle which, upon further examination, was inevitably sourced from a particular spring.  What I recall the most is that they all had — to a greater or […]

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Paul Dobbins was not what I was expecting.  Before I can explain my expectation, I should unravel why something that happened not far from Portland, Oregon lead me to meet up with Paul in a diner in Portland, Maine. The Pacific Northwest coast is home to the nation’s largest shellfish producers.  Abundant, thinly settled coastline and cold, nutrient-filled water make this ideal habitat for oysters and their kin. It’s been that way since the first humans made their way into […]

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As Proust crystallized for us, memory inhabits food in a very special way.  With the season of traditions behind us, I’ve been wondering what kinds of food-memories are being laid down right now and how they will be looked back upon, come some other day. We can find a hint in the NY Times, where the venerable Jacques Pepin has been revisiting the places and moments and food that intersect in his recall and it feels like a novel of […]

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December 28th, 2015

Big Mac Attack

BY Christian Ford

A long time ago, in the fall after the summer when people first left footprints on the moon, I was hungry.  Really hungry.  The kind of hunger you’d feel if someone told you that you couldn’t eat for two weeks which, in fact, someone had. That someone was a surgeon and though there were many things that the almost-seven-year-old me was none-too-pleased about, it was the hunger that was most constant.  I wasn’t being starved, mind you.  I was being […]

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December 3rd, 2015

Gum Lock

BY Christian Ford

If you’ve been to Seattle, chances are that you’ve visited Pike Place Market and if you’ve visited Pike Place Market, there’s a reasonable chance that you’ve come face-to-face with the Gum Wall.  In case you’ve been spared this experience, the Gum Wall is exactly what it sounds like — a brick wall completely encrusted with chewing gum. It’s bizarre and wince-inducing enough to have become a genuine tourist attraction. Or rather, it was, because the estimated 1.1 tons of gum […]

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October 29th, 2015

Boo

BY Christian Ford

In time for Halloween, here’s a grab bag of ways in which food fits into the holiday, no trick-or-treaters required. Our first certainly counts as a trick. The Pig-Made-Pet fad of the 1980s (Vietnamese Pot-Bellied Pig) has returned in the form of the “Teacup Pig.”  The sad truth is that the overwhelming adorableness of a piglet is inexorably fleeting.  They grow up, way up, into eating machines.  Time is the real prankster here, taking advantage of the naivety of 21st […]

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October 21st, 2015

Blackacres

BY Christian Ford

Let’s begin with an experiment.  In your mind’s eye, conjure up the image of an American farmer.  Nothing fancy, just the first thing that comes to mind.  Got it?  Good. Now, what color is your inner farmer’s skin? I’ll tell you mine — it’s white. A little dusty, heavily tanned, but unquestionably white.  Now if I push for more diversity, my farmer will turn female.  Then hispanic.  Then asian.  But that’s where my rainbow of farmerdom fades.  There are no […]

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October 13th, 2015

Counterintuitive

BY Christian Ford

The word in the Lakota language is Heyókȟa, but the whites who first recognized that these Native Americans were somehow different gave them the name of “Contraries.”  In simplest form, they were tribe members who did the opposite of what was expected or normal, whether that be bathing in dirt, or charging into battle when ordered to retreat.  This wasn’t occasional behavior, it was all the time, every day. Contrary to what you might think, this wasn’t an aberration, or […]

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October 7th, 2015

Father Knows Best

BY Christian Ford

In the wake of Pope Francis’ visit to the US, I’ve been thinking about a letter I got last summer.  You got it, too.  I know because it was addressed to every last person on earth.  Entitled Laudato Si’, (medieval Italian for “praise be to you”) it is what’s known as an encyclical, a letter which communicates the teaching of the Catholic Church. Now, generally, I’m not a fan of hierarchy.  But every once in a very great while, the […]

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September 24th, 2015

Zōon Politikon

BY Christian Ford

It was Aristotle who fixed the notion of humanity as zōon politikon, that is, a political animal.  His meaning was not that we have an intrinsic interest in endless election seasons, but rather that we only live up to our full potential when living as part of a polis, or community.  It’s an interesting distinction that has withstood the test of time; chimpanzees are damnably smart, but you’ll never see two of them cooperating to, say, carry a heavy object.  […]

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September 9th, 2015

All Thumbs

BY Christian Ford

A friend, knowing what I do here, recently suggested that I watch “The Mind of a Chef.”  Why not? I thought, pausing only briefly to muse that I had never intentionally viewed a cooking show, excepting a period in the third grade when I was mysteriously fascinated by something called The Galloping Gourmet. So I did watch an episode and “Mind of a Chef” seems a perfectly reasonable endeavor.  But the primary response that the show provoked in me was […]

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It was when I left behind the coast of Maine that I started thinking about George Orwell.  Two years before 1984, which is to say, in 1946, he wrote an essay called “Politics and the English Language” which was (one of) his efforts to rescue the English language from relentless abuse and misuse.  Admittedly, the decadent English that alarmed Orwell is an astonishingly pallid cousin to the computer-assisted hash we’ve made of it, but his point is still sharp and […]

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You never know what you’re going to find.  A humble demonstration at a hot and dusty harvest festival turned out to be something more;  a reminder of what expertise looks like in the unhurried certainty of its actions, a reminder that the pre-computer world was once rich with people who practiced skills that needed both mind and body and above all, a reminder  that physical labor can be an art, imparting dignity to all involved.

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June 24th, 2015

More, Sir

BY Christian Ford

A few weeks back one of the NYTimes’ most emailed articles was entitled “To Live on Schmilk Alone.”  (Interestingly, the online version, perhaps out of concern for the digerati, came labelled with the considerably less snarky “In Busy Silicon Valley, Protein Powder is in Demand.”)  Whatever you call it, however, it’s a story about how liquid food replacements are increasingly popular in coder culture.  Now, yes, this is the self-parody that Silicon Valley spontaneously fountains turned all the way up […]

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Things get interesting where the sidewalk ends. Edges, whether in the world made by man or the world made by nature, are where strange and amazing things happen. You see it in the difference between a seaport city and a landlocked one, and you’ll also see it the boundary between mountain and plain, forest and grassland, coral and open sea — all are marked by profusions of life. The science of ecology uses the word “ecotone” to describe that kind […]

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Along the way in the 20th Century, western culture went from being a word-based society to an image-based one.  In many ways, this is like the difference between drinking coffee and drinking wine — one focuses the intellect and the analytical, and the other heightens the emotions.  Ideally, you’d have a nice balance of both, but the discovery that it’s much easier to sell the eye on a purchase than it is to sell the brain means that we’ve been […]

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It was long enough ago that I can blame my ignorance of French history on youth, but I clearly recall wondering, “what are all these Arabs doing in the middle of the capitol of France?” On the left bank, a ten minute walk from the portals of Notre-Dame de Paris, I’d stumbled into an Arab quarter.  It wasn’t really the Paris I’d imagined, mostly composed of Gothic wonders tended by hunchbacks, Resistance fighters skulking through sewer mazes and the Eiffel […]

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Travelers to the US have long noted the American predisposition toward — perhaps obsession with — ice.  Cold beer, iced tea, even the crushed-ice cocktail (originally and sometimes still called a “smash”) all originated in the US. Now, long before the invention of artificial refrigeration, there had always been ice houses for storing ice harvested from wintertime lakes and rivers.  But it was small and local, a regional custom, something you either had or didn’t. All that changed in the […]

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April 29th, 2015

The Nut Tree

BY Christian Ford

Our early childhood memories are a kind of map.  It’s an imperfect one to be sure, the landmarks marooned in a patchwork landscape, the signposts lettered by unlettered scribe.  What’s more, the mapmaker is — for all intents and purposes — dead, so what we are left with is a guide to places and artifacts whose only reality is that they, once, meant something. Sometimes, you can’t begin to imagine why.  But sometimes it’s obvious.  Like the memory I have […]

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April 15th, 2015

Sunset Empire

BY Christian Ford

If you make it to the UK these days, you’ll find cracks in the united part of that kingdom.  Scotland didn’t vote to separate, but in the aftermath it’s become even more independent minded.  One of the bones of contention is the Trident Force, that is, Britain’s nuclear submarine base and concomitant nuclear weapons, all of which are controlled by London and kept in Scotland.  You can see how this might cause friction. Underlying the issue of sovereignty, is the […]

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It was a bit over 200 years ago that the globe began its transformation from a society powered by muscle to one fueled by fossils, so to speak.  One of the many footnotes of that transformation was how the breadfruit tree — a vital strategic resource in the 18th century — became meaningless.  So meaningless that the only reason “breadfruit tree” is even vaguely familiar is because of the melodrama that accompanied England’s attempt to obtain it.  This, of course, […]

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April 2nd, 2015

System Noise

BY Christian Ford

A couple weeks ago, the World Health Organization dropped a press release that labelled the world’s most used herbicide “probably carcinogenic.” This, of course, is glyphosate, better known as the key ingredient in Roundup, the jewel in the crown of Monsanto’s commercial empire.  In case the connection isn’t clear, glyphosate is the lynchpin of Monsanto’s business model of creating both a powerful plant killing chemical and also modifying the DNA of crop plants to resist said herbicide, thus allowing farmers […]

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March 19th, 2015

Peak B.S.

BY Christian Ford

Beer, a well-known chef once told me, is liquid bread.  The processes are remarkably parallel and, when done right, both have comparable nutrition.  That’s something to keep in mind when reading Tom Philpott’s report on the new USDA paper which reveals that craft brewers use 400 percent more barley in their beer than corporate brewers.  Given that barley, water and hops are the only ingredients you need to make beer, this is intriguing intelligence, and for me it tidily explains […]

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March 13th, 2015

Future Designs

BY Christian Ford

Eighty-nine years ago, the future arrived in Frankfurt, Germany.  Remarkably compact, six and a quarter feet wide and a little over eleven feet long, it was the product of thousands of hours of study and experimentation, optimally efficient, eminently rational, and geared for maximum productivity.  It was a kitchen. In the mid 1920s, Frankfurt was a hotbed of forward thinking, and it needed to be.  Germany was still reeling from the effects of the First World War.  The nation had […]

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February 11th, 2015

Rosa’s Pancakes

BY Christian Ford

Rosa Parks would have turned 102 years old last week.  A trove of her papers — from shopping receipts to postcards from Martin Luther King — is now being catalogued in the Library of Congress and among those papers is a cash envelope from the Detroit National Bank.  One day, Rosa picked up a pencil and wrote on the back of that envelope a recipe for what she termed “Featherlite Pancakes.”  It has fairly typical ingredients with one exception — […]

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February 2nd, 2015

Cut and Run

BY Christian Ford

When’s the last time you encountered a non-processed food that didn’t have a story? Identifiably farmed products more or less require a cloak of narrative, because market research reveals that shoppers are not merely drawn to it, but will fork over more money for narratized food.  At the same time, this storytelling bombardment has the effect of reducing most of these stories to a kind of design feature, a wallpaper, ubiquitous but ignored. That’s exactly how it is with a […]

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Resilience may on the verge of dethroning “sustainable” as the most overused/misunderstood term of our age, but I tend to think that “paradox” isn’t getting its due.  The times, as Dylan once sang, may be a-changin’, but what it looks like isn’t so much the booting of old regimes as the stacking of new ones on top of the old (and if you need proof of that, Dylan’s hand-scrawled lyrics sold at auction to a hedge fund manager for almost […]

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January 14th, 2015

Samurai City

BY Christian Ford

Blame it on too many Kurosawa movies, but when I think “samurai” the image that comes to mind is never exactly urban.  But that was the reality through the two and half centuries of Edo Period Japan, the era when just about everything that we think of as quintessentially Japanese — the complex simplicity, the rich spareness, the poetry of just about everything including violence — came to full fruition.  The city-dwelling samurai were the ones who ushered that golden […]

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January 7th, 2015

Altered States

BY Christian Ford

It’s a truism that you are what you eat.  But what-we-eat — once we get done with the growing, gathering and moving of it all — also shapes the world we inhabit. Maintaining our inner state has immense and inescapable effects on the outer states we inhabit, so it’s not a stretch to consider our diet as a kind of dialogue between our physiology and the life of the planet, the two forming and informing  each other. Take, for instance, […]

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December 25th, 2014

Little Gifts

BY Christian Ford

I had a grandfather who lived to an extraordinarily ripe old age and was consequently born and raised in another universe, namely the last vestiges of the Old West.  This is not an exaggeration.  One of his earliest memories was of playing in front of the family cabin and looking up to find six braves on horseback looking down at him.  (His mother — following the “don’t fight ‘em, feed ‘em!” dictum — invited the braves to lunch.)  But other […]

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December 12th, 2014

The Tule Fog

BY Christian Ford

There are places that you never wanted to be, places that you never even thought about, but places where you nevertheless wound up, because they were on the way to where you were going. One of those places is the San Joaquin Valley and on that December day, years ago, I was going to a wedding.  The Valley is a landscape of remarkable flatness, colored in shades of dirt and dead grass, and endlessly repeating the same themes:  dusty fields, […]

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December 2nd, 2014

Too Much Tech

BY Christian Ford

There are times when it becomes apparent that our shared language is lagging behind the things we need to say.  Take, for instance, the following topics and the theme that unites them.  There will be a test. Our first exhibit comes from a company that calls itself Molecule-R  and sells a product christened Aroma R-evolution.  (You can see that this is not an outfit adverse to neologisms.)  Actually, all their products are R-evolutions of some kind, and this one is […]

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November 27th, 2014

Down by the Sea

BY Christian Ford

This thanksgiving, I’m choosing to be thankful for not living on the shores of the Aral Sea.  It wasn’t always that way.  In point of fact, for centuries Aral seaside living has been the best choice for inhabiting the arid heart of Central Asia, where the immense lake — fourth largest in the world, half the size of England — was effectively a massive oasis.  So massive, that it once had its own navy. That started in the 1850s, when […]

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November 19th, 2014

Misplaced

BY Christian Ford

The history of spices reminds us that even in a world lit by fire, it was possible for delicacies from the remotest corners of the earth to end up in the far corner.  The history of exploration, too, was driven by the search for food until only the nineteenth century — sure, gold came out of the New World, but the real riches were the kind with roots.  Corn, tomato, potato, rubber, vanilla and, yes, chocolate all came from the […]

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November 11th, 2014

D.I.Y.

BY Christian Ford

I’ve got mixed feelings about the DIY/Maker ethos.  On the one hand, anything that counters our status as captive and hapless “consumers” is good.  But on the other hand, I wonder if DIY/Makerness is a distraction, if “look, I can program an arduino!” is a substitute for fundamental competency in any of the things which we (a) actually need and (b) access solely through purchasing power. But just when I feel myself becoming too cynical, along come people whose maker-ethos […]

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November 5th, 2014

The Esper Machine

BY Christian Ford

When you spend your days foraging for obscure corners of the history of food, it’s surprising to find one of those obscure corners in your own memory.  In the early 1970s, the child version of me found myself in Europe with my family.  My memories are scattered and patternless, but there’s one of a long-gone restaurant in Paris that has held on with particular tenacity. The place was called Le Drouot, and we’d found it in the pages of a […]

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Just in time for All Hallow’s Eve, here’s a selection of truly inspired vegetable carving from Shawn Feeney.  If these don’t make you give up in despair on your own pumpkin, then you’re either impervious or pretty damn good yourself.  But aside from the charm and virtuosity on display here, Feeney’s work does something else that’s rather surprising.  To put a big name on it, when Feeney carves up a piece of veg, he’s decommodifying it.   Before he starts, […]

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We’re a complicated enough species that it’s tough to be sure about what we see in the mirror.  That’s where looking at humanity through the lens of food comes in handy, because it’s awfully hard to hide what we are when it comes to how we eat.  There are few activities that are simultaneously utterly ordinary and life and death and consequently, it’s hard to hide the truth there. That’s the case in Berlin where a (wisely) anonymous Israeli hipster […]

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In December of 1810, the Baltic, a merchantman from Boston under command of a Captain Lovel, stopped at one of the most remote islands in the world and put ashore a man.  They weren’t marooning him.  His name was Jonathan Lambert and he was standing on the beach of a deserted shield volcano 1500 miles from the nearest continent because that’s the way he wanted it.  He’d come here — to the islands known as Tristan da Cunha — to […]

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What things appear to be and what they really are have never been one in the same.  Sometimes, that can be a good thing.  And some times, it’s exactly what you were afraid it was. Very occasionally, a spectacularly opulent cover hides a wonderfully modest text, and — even more occasionally — that’s just what you hope to find.  In Italy, on a site that was once a residence of Emperor Domitian, stands the Palazzo Apostolico di Castel Gandolfo — […]

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October 4th, 2014

Interesting Times

BY Christian Ford

Something startling happened the other day in Rome.  The FAO — the arm of the UN devoted to combatting world hunger — hosted a two day symposium on “agroecology.”  In order for this to seem startling, it’s helpful to know two things.  First that the FAO, for all its good institutional intentions, has always been a traditional and conservative advocate, a friend to business-as-usual.  The second is that agroecology is inherently opposed to industrial agriculture.  When hidebound governmental institutions start […]

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September 30th, 2014

Weirding Ways

BY Christian Ford

Life is weird.  I don’t mean strange things happen, I mean that the world’s  various animal and vegetal existences intertwine in ways that are pretty damn odd and, on occasion, exquisite.   The story of “mad honey” is one of those instances.  On the Black Sea shores of Turkey, our friends the bees sometimes visit a certain two or three varieties out of over 700 types of rhododendron and in so doing, produce a hallucinogenic honey.  That of course, is […]

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King Richard III, the king immortalized by Shakespeare as a “poisonous bunch-back’d toad” is enjoying a sort of rehabilitation since the discovery of his skeleton beneath a parking lot in the English city of Leicester.  First, he was confirmed to have died heroically in battle, and likely on foot (“my kingdom for a horse!”)  Second, he was revealed not to have been Shakespeare’s grotesque — in fact, it’s doubtful that anyone could have detected his curvature of spine if he […]

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There’s food and then there’s stuff in with your food. We have words to identify the shades of meaning here.  “Additives” are allowable substances, intentionally introduced.  “Contaminants” sneak in by accident or neglect.  But between those two poles are “adulterants.”   This is a tricky one, because they’re intentional like additives, but unwanted like contaminants.  What’s more, the line separating additive and adulterant is mutable;  sometimes the difference between one and another is simply whether you fess up to it […]

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September 20th, 2014

Stuck

BY Christian Ford

I’m having a novel experience.  The grocery store that is my main supply depot is being reconstructed over the course of a year while remaining open for business. At the moment, one wall has been replaced by an immense sheet of opaque plastic, all the floor tiles have been removed and one entire aisle has simply vanished.  It’s not uncommon that my mental map of the store leads me to a sign informing me of where what I’m looking for […]

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You may recall that Britain was in an uproar last year when horse meat was discovered masquerading as beef in a variety of frozen supermarket foods, such as “all beef” lasagna and “economy” burgers.  We took a peek at the blackly comic spectacle of various pots calling the stove black in the wake of the scandal, but more sober intelligences have also been looking. One of them is Prof. Chris Elliott of Queen’s University, Belfast.  He’s the director of the […]

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About a year ago, Fred Pearce wrote an essay at Yale Environment 360 that really stuck with me and since I’m still thinking about it this much later, it’s probably time to talk about why.   Pearce wrote about a tiny speck of land in the South Atlantic with the wonderfully mythic name of Ascension Island. One of only three islands rising in the South Atlantic (its cousins being St Helena and Tristan de Cuhna), Ascension was strategic from the […]

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Summer is the time when when we dabble in re-enacting the lifestyles of our distant ancestors, or as it’s also known, camping.  For all our efforts to make the experience of cooking out utterly indistinguishable from cooking in, it remains difficult to stand cocooned in the smoke of a fire (even if all you’re cooking are smores) and not consider that this was the daily reality of food preparation for a very long time.  So long, in fact, that it […]

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Point Reyes — pronounced “rays” — has always seemed a world apart.  Rugged, windswept and beautiful when you can see it between frequent bouts of fog, this triangular peninsula juts into the Pacific ocean 30 miles north of San Francisco.  Today, it’s a unit of the National Park system, a “National Seashore” whose vast and deserted beaches are the cleanest in the state.  But it’s something else entirely, because the peninsula stands on a different geological plate than the shore […]

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When one of the architects of the local food movement opines in the NYTimes that the movement is stalled, I stop, too.  The architect in question is Dan Barber, the chef behind the two restaurants called Blue Hill, and most particularly the one located at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. Stone Barns is a small farm, and an elegant one at that.  The eponymous barns were built by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. with the intent of making […]

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You’d have to be a certain age to remember, but local food once included candy bars.  Instead of the anonymous phalanx of identical bars that you now find at every drug store, gas station and movie theater, there were more motley assortments including, depending on where you were, candy bars that only appeared in certain regions or states. One of these was called the U-No Bar.  It was a West Coast candy, dating from the 1920s and invented in the […]

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May 6th, 2014

Empty City

BY Christian Ford

It’s a hard thing to believe much less describe, but there are times when New York City feels empty.  These are days when, for one reason or another, enough residents depart to make the streets feel under-peopled.  It’s a sense that steals up on you and then suddenly emerges as a certainty when you set foot in one of the city’s great spaces and find it, uncharacteristically, full of space and a kind of quiet. Broadway creates many of these […]

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There’s a particular irony to SnapChat’s moment of social media nowness.  It’s the idea that we need a technology to help us lose the things we say to each other.  As it is, we have a mechanism that thoroughly cloaks our meanings not only from each other, but from ourselves — language.  “Choose your words carefully,” goes the saying, intimating a tiptoe amongst sleeping alligators.  But that’s easier said than done because the living always make do with words that […]

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April 15th, 2014

Reefer Madness

BY Christian Ford

I bet I know the name of the banana sitting on your shelf.  The one malingering in your refrigerator.  The one turning black in your fruit bowl.  If we were identifying apples, the odds would be against me, but when it comes to bananas, confidence is high.  The reason is that the banana in your home and the banana in my home and just about every other home in North America are clones and every last one calls itself “Cavendish.” […]

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East of India, at the head of the Bay of Bengal, there’s a place that the geographers of medieval Europe labeled “paradise.”  You and I might not think of a steamy, equatorial, monsoon-lashed delta as paradise, but then again, it depends on your priorities.  For those medieval Europeans, what mattered was that the land was flat and fertile, a place where the ground never froze and water never lacked. In other words, it was one of those special places where […]

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In 1872, Charles Darwin was famous.  Probably a little too famous, if you were to ask him, as he had published the Descent of Man the previous year and thus ignited arguments that, astonishingly, continue to this day.  Not that he didn’t see it coming.  At one point, he considered the Descent too controversial to publish and so drew up a plan to spare his family some of the embarrassment by printing it posthumously. But in the end, the Descent […]

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The first thing to know about autarky is that it’s not “autarchy” — a government-less state where every individual rules him- or herself.  Autarky refers not to individuals, but to societies which are self-sufficient.  That self-sufficiency can manifest in a number of ways, but the most fundamental meaning is economic, and the root of all economics is the trading of food.  So, that’s our difficult autarky, the word that tells us a society can feed itself from its own resources. […]

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January 28th, 2014

Mother of the Sea

BY Christian Ford

In the south of Japan, there is a shrine overlooking the Ariake Sea.  In a park fringed with hydrangeas, behind a seashore where mudskippers improbably promenade, a modest bronze frieze bears the image of an Englishwoman who never set foot in Japan.  Her name was Kathleen Drew-Baker, and she lived her life in the hard industrial north of England where she was a lecturer at the University of Manchester.  A serious-looking woman, hair soberly tied back and with glasses that […]

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January 13th, 2014

The Cloche Garden

BY Christian Ford

We have a problem talking about food.  Not that we don’t talk about it; some days, it seems that the internet is evenly divided between shopping, porn and food porn.  But when it comes to talking seriously about food — about how the world’s population eats, mis-eats and doesn’t eat — language fails.  Chocolate or perfect espressos may come to life in mouth-watering prose, but if we try to talk about how those things are made and brought to market, […]

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